It happened today - December 6, 2015

On December 6, 1933, a United States federal judge ruled that Ulysses by James Joyce was not obscene. How on earth could he even tell?

I sort of applaud the ruling, not as most sophisticates do because dirty books are a positive blessing provided they are hard to read and the characters are deeply unhappy. I applaud it because it is not the state’s business to tell adults what not to read. It does not in my view relieve us of the obligation to reject things that are literary or moral rubbish.

Frankly, keeping my philistine streak going here, I consider Joyce guilty on both counts. Obviously he was a technically talented writer and his radically innovative stream of consciousness narration was cleverly done. But to what end?

To try to wash off the know-nothing stench, I should say that as a young man I considered myself sophisticated because I read things like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which is extremely clever, impenetrable and very definitely obscene. As far as I know, having never read it and not planning to, Ulysses is also obscene.

Indeed, I think it was absurd for a judge to say it was not rather than to say it didn’t matter. Or rather, that it didn’t matter legally speaking. I wish judges would not twist the law instead of relying on plain statements of it like, for instance, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution about abridging freedom of speech.

I also think that whatever obscenity Ulysses may reward the hardy literary voyager with is unlikely to be its worst flaw. Most of us adults know by now what goes where and why, and have some idea what can go wrong when this knowledge is misused. We don’t need to hear it from James Joyce.

Nor do we need to read self-obsessed deliberately incomprehensible endless books about a man whose life was a massive alcoholic downer. Joyce was a feckless, irresponsible parent and husband, utterly self-absorbed, qualities most short online biographies pass over in silence in order to gush about his brilliance because they exert a strange attraction for many intellectuals.

Supposedly his long-suffering wife Nora once asked him “Why don’t you write books people can read?” It’s a good question, and if she didn’t really ask it she failed him as a critic and a wife.

Is Joyce’s work including Ulysses obscene? Probably yes sexually. Certainly so technically and morally. As is intellectuals’ admiration for him.